#AWP17 Conference Report — Telaina Eriksen on “Does Gender Matter? Wrestling with Identity and Form in the Golden Age of Women’s Essays”

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PM #AWP17 Panel S137: Does Gender Matter? Wrestling with Identity and Form in the Golden Age of Women’s Essays

Description: In 2014, The New York Times asked if it’s a golden age for women essayists. Cheryl Strayed gave a qualified yes. But while a wave of women’s essays is shaping the literary scene, women are underrepresented in journals and the standard-bearer, Best American Essays. Our panel explores the literary fallout from this paradox, the shape-shifting nature of essays, why it’s tricky to identify as a woman writer, the effects on our work when asked to write as women, and the complications of invisibility.

Panelists: Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Barrie Jean Borich, Kyoko Mori, Jericho Parms, Michele Morano

Conference Report

This Saturday morning panel, comprised of authors with essays in the new anthology Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women (edited by Marcia Aldrich), began with Bartkevicius reading a statement from Aldrich, who could not attend AWP17. Aldrich said Waveform had begun because she believed women essayists weren’t getting the attention they deserved. Women essayists were not merely blending into the male tradition of the essay, but actively defining the genre in terms of style, voice, tone, and structure. Aldrich said that she had imagined Waveform, released in December 2016, would fit in with the celebratory tone following the election of the United States’ first female president, but now, given our current political situation, the anthology occupied a “precarious space between celebration and protest.”

Bartkevicius, who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and is the former editor the Florida Review, read a selection from her contribution to Waveform, Gunshy. She commented on the shame she felt as a progressive woman who owns a gun, and the heaviness of the topic of guns in our society—heavy physically, politically, and in terms of life and death. Her essay, she said, was an inquiry into why she owns a gun, and grapples with complexity that “cannot be condensed,” of owning a gun and living just a few miles away from where Trayvon Martin was shot.

Borich, author of My Lesbian Husband and The Body Geographic, teaches at Chicago’s DePaul University, said her essay The Truth is an associative essay and one of its themes is to take back “femmeness” and to look at femme bodies with positive eyes. Part of the essay features Sylvester, who was “a 1970s gay femme and disco / R & B / soul singer who first became known as one of the hippy queer performers of San Francisco’s Cockettes.” Borich said she “encountered the video interview with comedian and talk show host Joan Rivers. ‘I’m not a Drag Queen,’ Sylvester said to Joan. ‘I’m Sylvester.’ Borich said (on Waveform’s blog) that, “In every writing project that includes research the writer falls upon a detail that becomes the everything of the essay’s discovery journey. This line became my center because it illuminated the dignity of self-definition and the livingness of claiming any human and artistic category as our own.”

Morano, author of Grammar Lessons and teaches at Chicago’s DePaul University, read from her essay Breaking and Entering, which begins with her mother breaking into their family home to get their personal possessions after her mother had left her father for a woman. Morano said, “Shame tends to point toward interesting material.” This coming-of-age essay’s themes are love, secrecy, denial, bitterness, the brokenness of family and “everyone behaving badly.” Morano said that shameful secrets in our history can “prepare us in an unconscious way for story-telling.”

Mori, the author of three nonfiction titles and four fiction titles, discussed her essay Cat Stories and its irony and paradox. In the essay, she identifies her need for solitude as well as for her cat’s company. Mori said that in daily life she thought of her body as a “physical instrument for movement” but when she sat down to write, her gender became central. Mori said she is childless by choice but her role as “daughter, granddaughter, and niece” greatly inform her narrative perspective. Mori said there was a long tradition from Shonagon, Austen, Bronte, Wharton, and Woolf of making gender matter in writing.

Parms, author of Lost Wax, discussed her essay On Puddling, which is a list essay. Parms said she was struck by the question of gender and structure—did identity within the essay matter to its structure? Parms said On Puddling has 22 numbered segments, and 22 is the age at which her friend, one of the essay’s centers, had died. Parms said she takes form seriously and that she used structures like the list for “special occasions.” She said the list structure didn’t exist so an author could “avoid the connective tissue” needed for a successful essays, and that the structure of the essay should be warranted by the subject matter, not contrived.

Authors included in the Waveform anthology also read Wednesday (February 8) evening at Kramerbooks and Afterwords in Dupont Circle to kick-off AWP17. The featured essayists read to a standing-room-only crowd of over 70 people.

[Editor’s Note: Read Assay’s interview with Marcia Aldrich and Jocelyn Bartkevicius about the Waveform anthology and panel.]

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Telaina Eriksen is the author of Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child and is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Michigan State University.

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