Feminist Fiction: Turning the Tide


  

By Susan DeFreitas

***

December 28, 2016

It’s been nearly two months since my debut novel was published, and I’ve gotten some lovely reviews. Read It Forward noted the authenticity of my details, the economy of my storytelling (“as if Donna Tartt had been edited by Gordon Lish”). Rain Taxi wrote that my novel brings “contemporary environmental activism into the literary vernacular.” Powell’s Books—the largest independent book store in the world, which happens to be my local shop—made it a staff pick, going so far as to call it “a must-read.”

But it’s only today that a reviewer has finally said what has seemed obvious to me from the start, and that reviewer is Megan Burbank, the arts editor of the Portland Mercury.

“Complexity is exactly what’s missing from literary fiction’s current obsession with stories about activist circles. While an author like Jonathan Franzen might make bemusingly unexamined digs at his squatters and freegans . . . DeFreitas strikes a delicate balance, depicting social agitation as, really, what it is: a gradual, infuriating, complex effort performed by smart, dedicated, flawed humans to varying degrees of commitment and success.”

If you are a writer—someone who has labored long over words that no one else will ever read—this is the moment when your hand flies to your heart.

“DeFreitas carries this laidback realism through Hot Season, from seemingly minor details that build her rich universe…to the book’s complicated, relatable women characters. (The men of Hot Season are refreshingly peripheral.) From unhappily coupled Jenna’s fantasy of solo life on a ranch without men, to Rell’s levelheaded attempt to balance her political ideals with the practical demands of her life, to Katie’s dangerous attraction to self-mythologizing, Hot Season is really a book about women.”

Holy shit, I could not help but think, somebody actually got it.

It’s true, as Burbank goes on to note, that in many activist movements, women and other marginalized people are often drowned out by “swaggering white-guy hypocrisy.” True too that in activist narratives, as in activist circles, the voices of women have often been drowned out by those of men.

For me, the case in point is Edward Abbey’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey is the grand old man of American eco-fiction, an author who has inspired generations of environmental activists, and a larger-than-life character in the Southwest.

He’s also misogynistic as hell.  

The heroes of The Monkey Wrench Gang are Doc Sarvis, George Heyduke, and Seldom Seen Smith—a retired doctor, ex-Green Beret, and Mormon wilderness guide, respectively. The sole female character is Bonnie Abzug, a New York liberal with an exceptional bust line. Throughout the whole thrilling adventure, which (spoiler alert!) involves blowing things up and running from the cops, she complains incessantly.

As a writer who cares deeply about the West, I could not help but admire Abbey’s style, his gleeful subversion of the status quo (“Dr. Sarvis, with his bald mottled pate, was out on a routine neighborhood beautification project, burning billboards along the highway…”). Abbey held that the moral duty of a writer was to be a “critic of his own country, his own government, his own culture”—a stance I, a child of the 1970s counterculture, embraced. I loved his humor too: “Everything in this book is true, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

And yet I knew that if I was going to tackle similar themes in my fiction, I’d have to flip the script on gender. Moreover, Abbey’s fantasy of ecological retaliation—setting fire to billboards, blowing up bridges, and destroying construction equipment—while fun, struck me as fundamentally flawed. Real change, in my experience (as my protagonist Rell notes) is “nothing but long, slow, pissy work.”

But therein lay a challenge that I believe goes to the heart of the way that the novel, a male-dominated art form for most of its history, has been defined. Because if you don’t have the “money shot” of a dam blowing up, the climax in which your renegade heroes have a showdown with the bad guys—well, where’s the story?

Long, slow, pissy work may be the true work of civilization, but it’s also damn hard to write about.

I also knew that if I was going to push back against Ed Abbey, I couldn’t just make my female characters smart and capable at every turn (the foil of annoying Ms. Abzug). That would be falling into the trap of the “strong female protagonist”—which, to my mind, is no more than the sort of male hero we’ve grown sick of, but with boobs.

My approach was to write a novel with a multiplicity of female points of view. A novel in which, as Burbank pointed out, the male characters were “refreshingly peripheral.”

All of the main characters in Hot Season are female, and all of them are involved in the fight to save a local river—but their stances, ideologically speaking, range from timid to militant, starry-eyed to pragmatic, representing a whole range of personality types and developmental stages.

This was a college novel, after all. It was important to me that the young women in it were free to be both serious and silly, engaged with philosophy and politics but also preoccupied by romantic dramas (not to mention whether or not they would be able to find a job after graduation).

My overall goal with the novel, in terms of both the characters and their politics, was complexity—and here, at last, someone got it.

It does not surprise me that the reviewer who did is a graduate of Smith College, whose alumnae include Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. A place, Burbank has noted elsewhere, “where women don’t have to apologize for being smart, where feminist ideals move from theory into practice.”

In fiction, as far as I’m concerned, moving from theory into practice means more than replacing male heroes with female ones. It means rethinking the way such narratives are structured.

Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps my favorite living author, noted in an interview with David Naimon that not only must a female author overcome a literary establishment that seeks to silence her at the time of publication, she must gain champions in order to cement her legacy, in order to keep it from being silenced in the years to come.

Though Hot Season is a work of realist fiction, I claim Le Guin’s fantasy novel Voices as a blueprint. Voices is marketed to YA readers, with a cover suggesting no more than fan fiction set in Middle-Earth. But what lies within those covers is one of the most subversive works of feminist fiction ever written—one in which the “money shot” of conventional confrontation, when a subjugated society rises up against its colonial masters, and its attendant bloodshed is, somehow…averted.

The tension between societies, between moral positions, between cultures, which drives the story like a steam engine, is never, in fact, consummated. The war, however righteous, never reaches a flash point, preserving the lives of all concerned. It is speech—both rhetoric and poetry—that turns the tide, at the moment of highest tension.

That, to me, is revolutionary.

The climax of both Voices and Hot Season is the opposite of a “money shot.” It reverberates, again and again, through the lives of many characters, through many perspectives (call it a series of multiple orgasms).

In Voices, as in Hot Season, there’s a nod toward the classical (male-defined) structure of the novel, which mandates direct confrontation at the point of climax, and yet the text subverts it, in favor of the truth: civilization, our greatest achievement as a species, is not defined by violent confrontations.

It is defined by the less showy stuff, which is ultimately more real—the long, slow, pissy work that, ultimately, turns the tide.

***

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in the Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014). In 2014, her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award.

A graduate of Prescott College, DeFreitas has a background in marketing and publicity for green businesses, and from 2009 to 2012, she covered green technology for Earthtechling. Her creative work reflects on and incorporates themes related to the environment, sustainability, and the natural world. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband.

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