It is the day after the Women’s March and I am asking the question: Am I a well-balanced reader when it comes to the multiplicity of writers, especially that of women writers and characters?
I sit down in my office this morning to take stock of all the books on my shelves. I want to know what they have to say about my personhood. As you might guess, male authors penned most of the titles. I am happy, though, as I run my finger across Nami Mun’s Miles From Nowhere, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Helena Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus and Toni Morrison’s Jazz. And two recent purchases, Christine Sneed’s newest release The Virginities of Famous Men and Julia Fierro’s Cutting Teeth, are nearby. (I have yet to meet this other Fierro—other as in same last name shareholder, not as other-other as you writer-types might assign so quickly.) Mary Gaitskill and Flannery O’Conner are quick to stare me back into my seat. I duck down behind a weary Raymond Carver as he pours me two fingers of single malt and tells me not to read too much into it, bub. If we just sit quietly, all of this will pass soon enough.
Actually, I don’t think Raymond would say that at all. His male characters punched themselves in the face often enough over a woman.
This particular shelf holds The Best American Short Stories collections. Each table of contents recalls the stories that affected me most. Edited by Amy Tan, the 1999 edition holds the richest balance of voices in my opinion. Alice Munro’s “Save the Reaper”, Pam Houston’s “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had”, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” are powerful, lasting stories from authors whose work I continue to enjoy nearly two decades now. Real, Nasty, enduring women. (That’s a badge I am pretty sure Pam Houston would proudly point to in a crowded room.)
Aside from Philip Levine’s What Work Is and 500 pages of Octavio Paz, most of my poetry collections are by women—some contemporary favorites by powerful poets I have come to know well and respect as some of the most compassionate people in the world—Cathy Linh Che’s Split and Jill Osier’s powerful chapbook, Bedful of Nebraskas, come to mind. Emmy Pérez’s With The River On Our Face will move you to tears if you read it correctly positioned, facing south and flowing toward the estuary out into the Gulf of Mexico.
All of this makes me wonder about my own assumptions on roles, and if it is something I need to address with a shining spotlight of indictment every time I sit down to write. I believe that I am conscientious when it comes to developing character, and I understand that there are very real differences between the subjectivities of men and women. We can get into the discussion about men writing female protagonists another time, when the blog space here allows for longer dances. That being said, men have a terrible time with it… talk amongst yourselves. Junot Diaz tried it in his last collection, This is How You Lose Her, with a story titled “Otravida, Otravez”. To me, the piece fits into the collection much like a thumb smashed with a hammer fits into a pair of batting gloves—(please note that I do actually have a healthy writer crush on Junot Diaz. Fiesta, 1980 crushes my heart.)
Maybe it’s me, but I often hear the male author’s voice and forced intention upon female character instead of a lived experience of being female, and the historical and political empathy that should accompany it. It’s not too much to ask of an author, is it? That’s the responsibility of being one, and if you are blessed from above, and you hone your skills, and you listen intently, then you, too, can write immediate and essential works like a few of my favorites from Luis Alberto Urrea. His novels Into the Beautiful North, The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America are female protagonist writing lessons as much as they are beautiful and necessary story. Try them on for size and get back to me.
I do play it too safe in my own work, not developing female protagonists, but I look at this way: I have a five-year-old niece who is my world. I don’t want anyone, including me, and especially not the male-lens-driven historical accountability machine, to tell her how to perceive or instruct her womanhood or how to interpret her consciousness. Hopefully by the time she is learning her historical identity, leading women holding burning torches to the “alternative facts” will have already rewritten the textbooks. If you don’t mind, remember that wish for the next shooting star you see.
Until then, I pull the aforementioned books off my shelves, the ones I think she will need to read during the times when that shooting star temporarily dims across the night sky. I put them inside a box that I’ll keep close by. I will sit on it and point to it at family functions. I’ll drag it to Los Angeles Dodger games and to Disneyland. Take it on all the rides. It is an old moving box that has FRAGILE written on all four sides in bold, permanent black lettering.
I’ve crossed all that out.
Bryan Allen Fierro, author of Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul (The University of Arizona Press), received his MFA in fiction from Pacific University in Oregon in 2013. He won the Poets and Writers 2013 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award in Fiction, and placed in both the 2013 Hemingway International Short Story Contest and Masters Workshop at the Tucson Book Festival. His stories have appeared in the literary journals Copper Nickel and Quarterly West. Originally from Los Angeles, California, he has lived in Alaska for thirteen years, and currently works as a firefighter/paramedic for the Anchorage Fire Department. Dodger Blue is his debut book of stories.