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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WEDDED TO THE LAND merges memoir and poetry as it digs deep into life on a Michigan blueberry farm

Wedded to the Land

Wedded to the Land: Stories from a Simple Life on an Organic Fruit Farm

By Joan Donaldson

West Bow Press, 2013

$13.95, 170 pages

If reading takes us places, I spent much of late 2014 and early 2015 in western Michigan, a place I’ve never been and know little about. Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed post-plague novel, Station Eleven, features a roving band of Shakespearean actors traveling along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Lisa Lenzo’s short story collection, Strange Love, is set in the arty resort town of Saugatuck and nearby Grand Rapids. Some of the stories in Monica McFawn’s Bright Shards of Someplace Else (the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award winner) are set in the same area.

Last week I “spent” a few enjoyable days at Pleasant Hill, the organic blueberry farm owned by John Van Voorhees and Joan Donaldson and located southeast of Saugatuck about five miles inland from Lake Michigan. (For all I know, John and Joan may know Lisa and Monica, who teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. It’s a small world, perhaps even more so in literature.)

Wedded to the Land is a series of essays about the hard life – and many rewards – of living close to the land, in which the rhythm of one’s life is controlled by weather and the change of seasons, rather than, say, the five-day workweek and a nine-to-five routine. Donaldson has been writing in her limited free time for many years, and this collection captures events that took place over a nearly 20-year period.

The pleasures of this book are much like the lives lived within its pages: simple, full of natural beauty, and often gratifying. Donaldson’s writing is a blend of traditional memoir and nature writing, in the tradition of Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez, with less science and no particular agenda other than to depict their attempts to live and grow blueberries as organically as possible.

We experience the rhythm of planting, tending, pruning, and harvesting blueberries and other crops. There is much drama in the farm’s life cycle, with threats posed by weather, pests, equipment breakdowns, and work-related injuries.

“Different rhythms punctuate farming: the ping of a maple sap into a metal bucket, the chug of a baler scooping up and spitting out bales, the crunch of a goat’s teeth on corn. The time signature varies with the seasons; the mode influences the mood. Harvest accelerates the pace into dozens of sixteenth notes. But sometimes the beat dissolves in the struggle to survive.”

Donaldson describes their emotionally fraught trip to a Colombian orphanage to adopt two brothers, four-year-old Matthew and not quite two-year-old Carlos. One of my only complaints about Wedded to the Land is that Donaldson never describes the boys’ transition to America and farm life following their early years living on the streets of a barrio after their mother abandoned them. She jumps forward in time to tell us about Carlos’s efforts to grow a huge pumpkin for a local contest, but Matthew has seemingly disappeared. Not surprisingly, Donaldson recounts some unfortunate developments involving Matthew much later in the book, when he turns 18.

Wedded to the Land would possess more narrative power had Donaldson focused on a year or two in the life of the farm, rather than opting for a series of disconnected vignettes that feel like they were originally written as individual columns.

Although Joan narrates the book, we get a clearer and more vivid picture of John. He is a true workhorse, who loves the land, the crops it produces (with his cultivation and constant vigilance), and the work itself. He is laconic and even-tempered, and often speaks in sentences that dispense with pronouns. “Too early. Better wait a week.” “Chain saw got me.” “Too much other work.” At least as depicted in his wife’s book, he is all business and a jack-of-all-trades who is totally devoted to their farm and almost single-handedly keeps the place running.

Friends are crucial to those who live on a farm, both personally and economically. Neighbors and folks from within a two-hour radius converge on their farm to help them raise a barn, a grueling team effort that Donaldson depicts vividly. When John ends up in the hospital in Grand Rapids following a farm accident, Joan races home at night ahead of a snowstorm to warm up the house (which lacks central heating) and make sure there is enough water in the tank.

“The car’s tires whirred through the slush as it crested the driveway and slid around t he curve before halting. My wet boots trudged toward the dark house. A tangle of footprints spun through the front yard. Vandals? I followed the trails to the woodshed. A few golden chips littered the churned snow, but the logs had vanished. Split wood filled the shed. I ran up the porch steps. Warmth gushed through the front door. The black needle on the water gauge peaked a forty pounds of pressure. I collapsed in the rocker near the stove and cried, holding my fingers near the fire and thanking God for my friends.”

Perhaps the highlight of Wedded to the Land is the lovely descriptive writing about both people and place. Early in their marriage, Donaldson describes her first winter on John’s family farm. “That winter, the winds off Lake Michigan whipped snow into wraiths that swirled across the open fields; the drifts rose to our windowsills and buried our Datsun.”

She describes some of the seasonal migrant workers who help them pick the blueberry crop. “Emma, her husband Bud, and three-year-old daughter had rattled north from Florida in their blue Fairlane and unpacked their bundles in a migrant cabin. Dressed in jeans with a gray t-shirt bulging over his beer belly, Bud sat on a bucket, coughing. Nine months pregnant, with a scraggly pony tail, Emma wore stretch pants and maternity top bleached so often that its flowers were gray… I admired Emma’s tenacity. She reminded me of the women I had met while volunteering in eastern Tennessee, a breed of women as gritty as cornbread and as sweet as sorghum.”

Many years later, western Michigan is hit by a record-setting drought that threatens the Pleasant Hill crops. “In June, the dragon laughed, and hot winds sucked the remaining moisture from the soil, leaves, and plant stems. Sand sifted across the surface of my garden as if the carrots grew on a desert dune. Quartz and feldspar crystals tumbled between the plants as I weeded and mulched them. Grit coated my lips. The lack of rain sliced farmers’ hearts; the winds drove salt into the wounds.”

Donaldson and her husband appear to have lived a simple but satisfying life on their farm for over 40 years. If you need a respite from your hectic life, you might enjoy a visit to Pleasant Hill Farm. While Wedded to the Land is not quite a full meal in itself, think of it as a serving of fresh blueberries between courses, an ideal palate-cleanser following a heavy meal of literary fiction.