The World at my Table

Last night I spoke on a PEN World Voices panel about diversity in literature. Claire Messud, effortlessly brilliant, moderated. Norman Rush spoke some about his novels set in Africa. Alex Epstein, a remarkably gifted poet and novelist who hails from Israel by way of St. Petersburg, represented the position of an author critically acclaimed in his own country who remains virtually unknown in the United States. Esther Allen, an accomplished translator who co-founded the festival six years ago, stepped in when British Jamaican novelist Andrea Levy got volcanoed and couldn’t leave London.

The panel grew out of an essay that Claire Messud wrote for Guernica magazine, an online journal of art and politics. In the February issue she wrote:

The great twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, insisting that she was a poet plain and simple, rather than a “woman poet.” She wrote that “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”

As an American writer of the early twenty-first century, I agree with her wholeheartedly. An artist’s work is in no way limited or defined by her gender. To allot space, then—such as this fiction section of Guernica—to women writers specifically is, surely, to limit and define them—us!—by an irrelevant fact of birth. Why not, at that point, organize a fiction section comprised of blue-eyed Capricorns from Atlanta?

And yet, when given the chance to gather a selection of writers for the magazine, I didn’t hesitate: I knew at once that I wanted to showcase the work of women writers. Not because they’re women, but because they are writers whose work thrills and surprises me. And because, simply on account of their gender, they are too often overlooked by the silly popularity contests that are juries and boards and lists. This is not a question of the writers’ quality but of our society’s habits, and of a habitual—and primarily lazy—cultural expectation that male writers are somehow more serious, more literary, or more interesting. When awarding laurels of various kinds, it is all too often a matter of who one thinks of first: if one thought twice, things might look a little different…. 

So this is why my contribution to Guernica is devoted to younger women writers: because I’m urging you to read this work, to read these writers, thinking it’s quite possible you haven’t yet discovered them. Obviously, there are lots of brilliant women writers not included here; and these seven remarkable women form no cohesive group. They write from different perspectives and record vastly different worlds: Chimamanda Adichie’s posh Nigerian matriarch wouldn’t converse with Sefi Atta’s hard-up middle class Lagos narrator, even though their sharp observations of their shared society would shock and intrigue one another. The kids from Holly Goddard Jones’s middle school in small-town Roma, Kentucky, would never cross paths with Elliott Holt’s well-heeled Beltway-raised Helen, unless they all became writing students in rural Pennyslvania, in a class taught by Porochista Khakpou’s volatile and eccentric exiled New Yorker, Azita. Lorraine Adams’s Arash, deeply rooted in his family house in Lahore, would be baffled by Hasanthika Sirisena’s American-raised Sunil, a good ole boy suddenly at sea in Sri Lanka. These characters, like their creators, may have few obvious things in common; but they all share a vividness, an immediacy, a force of literary talent, that impress upon us not only that American fiction is vitally alive, but that its reach is wide, its concerns broad, and its understanding of the world complex.

The panel was expanded to include discussion of the paucity of works in translation in the United States. (It’s first title was “Women, Sex and Fiction.” It eventually became “The Diversity Test Gender and Literature in Translation.”) I’ve written about the challenges of bringing work written in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Chinese from the Muslim world to the American public. But it was the first time I’ve ever spoken about my frustrations about gender. Afterwards a crew of writers and one of Guernica’s key patrons headed to my Harlem kitchen for Majorcan stew. Going around the table at one point we discovered that the languages spoken in childhood included Tamil, Italian, French, Arabic and Russian. We also succeeded in seating a Palestinian poet and an Israeli novelist right next to each other without anyone acting crazy.