Summer Reading: Moon Tigers and Women Writers
I sometimes worry that my writing has too much of ‘me’ in it. Female authors are always accused of being ‘confessional’ as if women are full of sin and empty of imagination. Our small brains and wrung out hearts force us to write of ourselves, while men write epic, limitless fiction.
Anyone who has read Hemingway will know that men are just as confined by their own experience as women are. I don’t know if any authors, male or female, could put their hands on their hearts and say ‘this book has nothing to do with me.’ And if anyone can, I wonder if their writing is any good. I don’t feel qualified to write on things I have no knowledge of, or haven’t experienced at least by proxy.
Books by women are routinely dismissed in a variety of ways, but this is perhaps the most consistent. ‘Books by women about women for women’ seems to be a whole genre, one that comes with a bookcase full of depressing connotations. Why are we assuming that women are writing for women? Is female experience really only interesting to other women? And even if that’s true, why is that an insult? Women are seen as secondary, both as creators and as consumers. We write bad books and we have bad taste.
Penelope Lively is an author who clearly writes, in some way, of herself. Her female characters are often writers. Her most famous offering, ‘Moon Tiger’ (1987), is largely set in Egypt where Lively spent much of her youth.
Moon Tiger is a study of loss and romance. Sand seems to pour from the pages and pool around your feet, sucking you further into the story. Lively’s skill rests on her ability to capture and mine the depths of human emotion.
I can’t argue that Moon Tiger is based on Lively’s life, but there is no doubt that it is based in her experience. It’s a monument to the importance of realistically portraying the brilliance and futility of love, and it’s weak minded to imply that because Lively possesses a vagina and may have felt some emotions in her life, the book is lesser or was easy to write.
Writing that comes from the heart is often, in my experience, ripped out of you. Pain and love hurt just as much when you exhale them as when you first breathed them in. Drusilla Modjeska writes that women ‘read less for comfort and more for research.’ I love Moon Tiger because it mirrors, to some small extent, my own feelings and experiences. Lively puts sand into my outstretched hands, directs the sunlight onto my back and tells me that she has loved, lost and written.
Reading books written from a place of truth can only be beneficial for our emotional inner lives. Arguing that women’s writing can only reflect their own experiences is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of both reading and writing in the first place.